30 October 2012

ITALIAN HORROR: THE SECOND MOTHER

Part of the Italian Horror Blogathon at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies

1980's Inferno, Dario Argento's very next movie after Suspiria was not just a sequel - a sequel that had not by any means suggested itself from the plot of the first film, mind you - but a film that went as much deeper into complete, deliberate incoherence as Suspiria had done to the gialli that were Argento's stock in trade throughout most of the 1970s.

In other words: Inferno is a whole lot of nonsense, but the kind of nonsense that is gloriously attractive to a certain kind of viewer. But at the same time, it's not just arbitrary, the way some of its detractors would have you believe (and they are numerous: Inferno has not customarily received anything near the broad acclaim of its predecessor), for it does make a certain warped kind of sense if you look at it from just the right angle. The film is, after all, just completing an experiment that Suspiria began: if that film takes a fairly standard, comprehensible murder mystery narrative and films it with the inescapable visual logic of a nightmare, Inferno is structured to the narrative sense of a dream, but filmed with a for more sedate, rational aesthetic, though admittedly, it's only in comparison to Suspiria that we can get away with calling Inferno "sedate". But do not let its nominally grounded visuals trick you: this is a very impressionistic, irrational movie, in which the same mystery scenario that at least kept Suspiria on the rails somewhat is sacrificed in a particularly overt way: if there's one thing that we can all agree on about Argento's script for Inferno, it's that it goes out of its way not to work as a traditional murder mystery.

The plot starts with a young woman whom we'll eventually learn is one Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle), reading with rapt attention from a book called The Three Mothers, an apologia written by a 19th Century architect named Varelli, in which he explains with great shame how, once upon a time, he was responsible for building the grand homes for three sisters, who turned out to be powerful witches: Mater Suspiriorum, the Mother of Sighs, Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Shadows, and Mater Lachyrmarum, the Mother of Tears. These three terrible figures, representing the menacing specter of Death, have turned their homes into corrupt loci of malevolent psychic energy, plotting their vile acts from the strongholds Varelli designed for them.

The name is probably enough to give you a clue that we've already met Mater Suspiriorum, only we knew her as Helena Markos, and we saw her die, with her evil taken out of the world by a willful innocent, an act that is not mentioned anywhere in the current film and doesn't seem to have bothered the other two mothers very much. We also note that her ballet studio was in a building said to have been occupied at one point by Desiderius Erasmus, which would seem to run afoul of an architect living some 300 years after Erasmus's death, but if you're going to get worked up over inter-film continuity errors, than boy howdy, are you not going to have an easy time of Inferno.

The movie starts out as Rose's attempt to discover whether, as she suspects, one of the Three Mothers occupies in the distressing old building where she lives in New York City, but it doesn't end up there; perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the film is that it cycles between protagonists almost at random, functioning basically as a series of mini-movies, in which we follow a new person's attempts to make sense of the mystery surrounding Mater Tenenbrarum - for it is she who dwells in Rose's building - and maybe even stop her, until that person is killed. It does not build up any momentum at all, and given that the person who finally tracks down Tenenbrarum wasn't really trying to, and isn't really aware of the work down by the other, deceased protagonists, it's probably not fair to say that it functions as any kind of mystery or thriller.

In fact, I don't think we have a word for the kind of movie Inferno is, unless it is the case that, like Suspiria before it, this is an exercise in pure experiential horror, trying to replicate by its very inscrutability and randomness the feelings of the characters caught in a web of illogic and magic. But I don't think that fits - Suspiria justifies that reading because it takes the time to ground it in a narrative situation that we have some decent reason to suppose will resolve itself conventionally - it starts out miming a giallo, and spends its first half setting up a mystery. Inferno, by contrast, has already jettisoned even the rudiments of narrative coherence in its first scene: Rose assembles clues that don't really follow the way she apparently believes they do, ends up descending into the basement beneath her building, and finds a small hole in the floor leading to an underwater room filled with old-fashioned, once-elegant furniture. Upon dropping her keys in this hole, she jumps in after them, but spends more time looking around than hunting for her keys. A corpse floats by.

There's not a single rational beat in this whole 15-minute sequence, which opens the film; instead of grounding the film in reality, it grounds the film in a very inscrutable unreality. And that unreality is incredibly like that which, to me anyway, is found in a dream - events follow because they just sort of do, not because there's any flow, the logical progression of physical places is not observed - if there has to be a underground pool filled with old furniture, well, so bet it - and people's forward movement is not tethered to what makes sense, but to going further and further into non-linear experiences. In fact, the opening 15 minutes, and the last five, of Inferno - making up by far the best 20 minutes of the entire feature - are maybe the best depiction of dream logic as it actually happens in dreams, rather than as movies try to present it. Inferno thus starts where Suspiria arrives: thrusting us into a nonsense world governed by the rationale of dream logic, making it impossible for us to escape.

If all this describes a movie even more aggressive than its predecessor - the most aggressive, perhaps, of the director's career - it's not entirely the case that Inferno is truly great Argento; in fact, I take it to be the weakest of the six films he made between 1975 and 1987, a stretch that I'm fairly sure most fans would agree represents his most important, creative period, notwithstanding the success of his early "Animal Trilogy" of gialli. Partially this is because the film simply lacks the visual explosiveness of Suspiria: the colors are wild and all, but it's not as monstrous and exciting in its imagery - there is nothing so damnably impossible here as there, which is maybe because the emphasis on narrative illogic required a retrenching to more stable visuals to keep the thing from getting too insane, a level of restraint not exercised in the later Phenomena and Opera. So it's simply not as visually lush as Argento's best work. Nor is the score, by Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake, & Palmer) remotely up to the standards of Goblin, with only one piece at the very end - a moogy parody of Gregorian chant - making a real impression at all, and given the importance of music in Argento's films, this isn't just a little complaint, but a real major flaw.

But just because Inferno is not A-list Argento, that does not mean it cannot be a damned effective surrealist horror film, because it certainly is: the disjointed chain of protagonists, most of them dying in rather nasty setpieces that feel a lot more visceral than the more overtly bloody ones in Suspiria, gives the film an excellent "anything goes" sensation; and Argento being Argento, there are many shots, many of them deprived of any particular context, that are creepy and unnerving just on the face of it: a mysterious student (Ania Pieroni) who drifts about looking like a Steve Nicks impersonator with murder on her mind, or a room full of cobwebby reptilian taxidermy, or the incredibly and excruciatingly leisurely death by rats in Central Park.

No, Inferno is surely a great work of horror; the only way in which it's disappointing at all, in fact, is in comparison with the masterpieces flanking it in the director's filmography. Of course, nobody could keep up that kind of track record continuously, and if this represents Argento's "off" film in this period, that only really speaks to how truly great the rest of his work was. Certianly, knowing what we now know about the dive his career would take after the '80s were over, Inferno is barely distinguishable from the director's high water mark, even if it can't quite muster up enough energy to be a true masterpiece on its own.

2 comments:

Troy Olson said...

I think one of the main problems with INFERNO when compared to SUSPIRIA is that even if SUSPIRIA doesn't have a standard narrative arc, it does have a protagonist that is interesting and the basics of a good narrative structure in that we care to see her get from point a to point b to solve the mystery. INFERNO definitely doesn't have that. Nor does it have anything much interesting to tie together the middle portions of the film.

But as you point out, the opening and finale are both pretty awesome. The reveal of Death at the end has always been an iconic image in my personal cinematic history.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I've always viewed Inferno in the same light as Fulci's The House by the Cemetery. Fulci had just come off his supernatural masterpiece, The Beyond, and then made the even more narratively incoherent The House by the Cemetery. People don't revere Fulci's third entry into the "Gates of Hell" trilogy (well, for one, it's not even on the same level as The Beyond), and I think one of the reasons for that is its association to the two previous (and better) films in the "trilogy." When people think films are tied together -- no matter how loosely -- there's always going to be comparisons being made. The House by the Cemetery is even more elusive than Fulci's other work; and, in some ways, I even like its tone more than something like City of the Living Dead. However, it's all over the place, and I can see why people disregard it and consider it "lesser" Fulci.

A similar feeling surrounds Inferno: you have a great master coming off their most baroque, fantastical film with something that befuddled viewers because of its association as a "sequel" to Suspiria. It plays just as fast and loose with the narrative as Fulci's film did, and one wonders while watching just what the hell point is in trying to follow along. Not that that's new to Italian horror by the time Inferno came out, but it's something to consider for why the film doesn't completely work.

That being said, there are moments in Inferno where I'm watching it, and I think to myself, "this is one of Argento's very best." Then, all of that good will is exhausted until the final moments of the film. That opening is something else, man, and is truly one of the standout setpieces in all of Argento's work (special shout out to Mario Bava, too, who helped the second unit direct that sequence for the ailing Argento).

Great stuff, Tim!